Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Within moments of arriving at the cabin, you begin to suspect that the owner is a madman.

Now this is some seriously fine, seriously literary, psychological horror.

There’s something about the label “horror” that makes the seriously literary (and those of us not so serious literarily) cringe. It’s a spectrum, after all; most of the stuff of good fiction – broken hearts, betrayals, war, violence, madness, depravity, death – is to a large degree degree horrific, or it wouldn’t be interesting enough for a story. It’s kind of arbitrary, at what point a story becomes “horror” when the supernatural isn’t involved. So if it bothers you, just ignore that word. Because this story has chops, and it shouldn’t be lumped in with the lesser stuff.

The opening sentence is enough to discourage a lot of people: oh, no, second person again?!?! as if “you” is some kind of pungent green vegetable one encounters at the dinner table or the company cafeteria from time to time. But don’t be afraid, it’s got a delicious hollandaise sauce – the whole thing just glides down – and seldom has “you” been more essential in a story. The talking-to-himself vibe, fading into the unreality-vibe of the subjunctive. Very nice. I’m putting this in the Second Person Study.

The progression is the star here. The narrator – “you” – has answered an ad for a summer house-sitter, sight and site unseen. He’s a bit surprised to find the house is a run-down cabin in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. “If the property is disheveled, then it must mirror the dishevelment of his mind.” No personal items exist, no clothing, books, knickknacks, just the minimal furnishings. And dreamcatchers. Everywhere, dreamcatchers.

The sheer excess: no glass in the cabin is unprotected by these webs. By these prophylaxes against nightmare.
Now here, you think, is a man absolutely terrified of nightmares.

Right of the bat, from the second paragraph, that the narrator is projecting motives and personality onto his unseen employer (and, by the way – there’s really no reason the narrator has to be male, I don’t think. So here I am projecting onto the narrator. Put that into your gender study and smoke it).

There’s a gradual slide into madness, of course. And eventually into subjunctive mood (“Of course, if you were the owner, you might find ways of believing otherwise”), which is where the serious literary chops come from. It’s subtle, and feels entirely natural. And even when read on a sunny afternoon in a clean, modern house with other people ten feet away, there’s a sense of increasing darkness and isolation that makes for damn creepy reading.

Double meanings abound:

Yes, you think, he has done what it took to protect himself from these nightmares of his and neglected everything else. While in the meantime, what really encroaches on the cabin is wilderness.…That is what the cabin reminds you of, in the end: a nail. Five rooms and a roof hammered into the heart of the forest, where they wait, with the patience of a nail, to become ingrown.

Not only is the cabin a nail (later the cabin is the hammer, insanity the nail), but “nail” has two meanings, which of course it does. All this nail business brings to mind the adage, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And while the narrator is bemoaning the owner’s tendency to neglect everything but the nightmares, he himself is doing the same thing.

But he doesn’t have nightmares. He’s expecting them, but no. After a week, he has what he considers a “waking nightmare” while looking in the bathroom mirror through a web of streaks and grime; a spider comes crawling out from behind the mirror: “The fact that the spider lives behind the mirror strikes you as unnatural and unnerving. It lives behind the mirror the way monsters live beneath beds.” The feeling passes, and he’s fine again.

A month goes by without incident (a great example of pacing). Then he discovers a clearing in the overgrown grass, and within the clearing, six silhouettes painted in black on the grass:

The six shapes look like crows perched along a power line, or like the chalked outlines of murdered men….what they most resemble are scarecrows. Would the owner have thought they could ward off flocks of nightmares, established in the yard like this? You would not put it past him.

And again, while speculating about just how crazy the owner is, the narrator has no idea he’s sounding a little crazy himself. And of course he gets crazier, deciding he’s snared by parallel thought structures linked to the house itself (“It is almost as if you have been hired not to house-sit the physical cabin, but to house–sit its parallel thought structure). Where does the owner, the house, end, and the narrator begin?

A game of anagrams yields a momentous discovery: HOUSE-SITTING is an anagram of I UNGHOST SITE. The narrator gets more and more into the owner’s imagined state of mind, what he is supposed to do.

The mountain contains the forest; the forest contains the weed field; the weed field contains the enclosure, which contains the shadows, and it also contains the cabin, which is coextensive with the thought structure.; the cabin and the thought structure both contain the dining room, whose walls contain the table at which you are sitting. Each container smaller than the last, and embedded inside it, like a series of nested parentheses. And at the center of this series is you. Every layer presses inward to where you sit. The mechanism is trying to crush your mind from all sides. But you are not worried, because you will never be driven mad. You sit calmly in the smallest chamber of all, your skull, impervious to the currents rippling against you: wall, wall, shadow, field. You are the one sane sentence at the heart of the parenthetical. You cannot be erased.

It all comes down to a showdown with a lawnmower. And a lady-or-the-tiger ending. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of that technique (it usually feels like a cop-out) but I’ll keep an open mind on this one.

Since he doesn’t have a website and he’s new on the scene, I can’t find out much about Bennett Sims. Bios list him as originally from Baton Rouge, with a newly-minted Iowa MFA and stories in Zoetrope: All-Story (and I’m seriously considering ordering that issue, though I have a policy to resist these impulses; the excerpt is, however, delicious), A Public Space, and now, Tin House. I’d love to find out if there’s any relation between him, the now-deceased liberal activist Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, and the screenwriter of Homebodies (1974). But mostly I just want to read more of his work. [Addendum: In June 2013 I read his first novel, A Questionable Shapecomments here – and I’m now officially a huge fan]

I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot of it.

5 responses to “Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012

  1. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: Getting Started | A Just Recompense

  3. Hey, just came across this post. Thought you might like to know that Bennett (I went to grad school with him) has a novel called “A Questionable Shape” coming out in May from a press called Two Dollar Radio. It’s on Amazon and if you search with some of these terms I’m sure you can find the interview they did with him. Anyway, thought you might be interested.

  4. Pingback: Bennett Sims: A Questionable Shape (Two Dollar Radio, 2013) | A Just Recompense

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